Elizabeth Sewell's portrayal of man-woman relationships, whether it be common-sensical or melodramatic — and it has been demonstrated to be both of these — involves nearly always an element of education. It is not, however, always the woman who educates the man. In The Earl's Daughter, for example, the process is mutual; Blanche educates the Earl in spiritual matters; he educates her in the world of the intellect and the arts. In Laneton Parsonage and Cleve Hall clergyman-fathers educate their daughters. In Katherine Ashton Mr. Reeves prescribes the course of reading that enables Katherine to educate herself; in Margaret Percival Father Andrea and Mr. Sutherland, between them, perform this function for Margaret. In Ivors Claude Egerton brings Helen Clare "up to the mark" during their on-and-off engagement; in Ursula Roger Grant takes Jessie Lee "untrained" for his wife and trains her afterwards. In Gertrude Edith and Gertrude look to Mr. Dacre for guidance; in A Glimpse of the World Myra Cameron, disillusioned by the fall of her idol, Mr. Verney, seeks out Dr. Kingsbury. Significantly, perhaps only in the best of the novels, The Experience of Life, and in the last novels, Home Life and its sequel After Life, do we note the absence of a strong masculine authority figure. In The Experience of Life there is Aunt Sarah; in the last novels, the narrator learns to trust her own experience balanced by the wisdom of her "opposite," Mrs. Bradshaw. The Anstruther-Bradshaw synthesis has already been dealt with in Chapter III. The effect of Aunt Sarah's distilled wisdom upon young Sarah will be discussed in Chapter VI. Let us here look at Miss Sewell's treatment of romantic relationships.
In the Sewell novels one has to look outside of heterosexual relationships culminating in marriage for the portrayal of passion — even of strong feeling. It does not take Sigmund Freud come from the grave to tell us this, only careful reading. To begin with, the typical Sewell heroine does not marry. Margaret Percival, Gertrude Courtenay, Myra Cameron, and Susan Graham do not; their foolish sisters do. Katherine Ashton and Ursula Grant do marry, but not until other objects of romantic feeling have been dealt with; furthermore, in the relationship with their fiances, companionship and respect are the elements stressed, not fascination. Still other admirable women characters are widowed or semi-widowed; Mrs. Anstruther and Mrs. Bradshaw are widows; so are Lady Catharine Hyde, Lady Augusta Clare, and the Countess Novera, Mrs. Courtenay, Mrs. Howard, and Mrs. Graham. Colonel Herbert is missing in action throughout most of Amy Herbert, and Mrs. Weir's husband is estranged from her through most of Ursula. Affiance couples undergo long separations in Ursula, Katherine Ashton, and Ivors; and when they are reunited their happiness is perfunctory and conventional, hardly calculated to stir even the most suggestible of readers. Real emotion, however, surges from the passages describing at least two brother-sister relationships and any number of girl-woman friendships.
The first of the brother-sister relationships to be considered is that of Edward and Edith Courtenay in Gertrude (1845). One must assume from Elizabeth Sewell's own statement that she "never loved any one else in the same intense way" in which she loved her brother William (Autobiography, p. 42), that she must have drawn on her own feeling for William in depicting Edith's for Edward. Whether William's one engagement to be married, afterwards broken, inspired the feelings that Edward Courtenay's engagement inspired in his sister we have no way of knowing. Obviously Edward's marriage and election to Parliament were not biographical, though Edward's tendency to grandiose philanthropic schemes and extravagant spending may well have been inspired by William Sewell.
Edith Courtenay's worship of her brother was first shaken, we remember, by the sudden announcement of his intention to marry Laura Howard, a "fashionable London belle." Concerned for her brother's plans for "economy" and "benevolence" and annoyed by not having been taken into his confidence, Edith prejudges Laura and "punishes" the offenders by refusing to be bridesmaid on some specious plea of previous engagements. The intensity of Edith's feeling of rejection Miss Sewell explains in terms of the feet-of-clay discovery concerning her idol, who had be en "not only Edith's dearest treasure, but . . . also her guide and counsellor. His enthusiasm and high principles had given the original impulse of good to her mind, and his letters and conversation had daily strengthened it" (Gertrude, p. 32). Still more revealing is Edith's conviction that the philosophical tone of Gertrude's letter on Edward's forthcoming marriage cannot be "an example for her" because Gertrude "had never given her whole affection to her brother" (p. 33). Now a term like "whole affection" is a strong expression even for an age when sibling sympathy was expected to be expressed in passionate language.
Perceptive indeed is Miss Sewell's analysis of the real source of Edith's pique. Edith had secretly hoped that Edward would try to persuade her to be a bridesmaid; instead he writes briefly of his regret at her refusal, and at length concerning plans for the redecoration of Allingham, soon to be his home. Edith's response is handled, in the following passage, by a smoothly executed shift in point-of-view from omniscient to limited
Edith's pride was wounded. His indifference was more galling than any irritation; and her aversion to her new sister-in-law increased. She believed that her vexation arose principally from being disappointed in Edward. Six months before his plans had been of lavish profusion in works of charity, and the most rigid self-denial in personal expenditure If he ever married, his wife was to possess similar tastes: and yet, in one week, 'the baseless fabric' of his visions had vanished. Ornamental lodges had taken the place of alms-houses; painted glass was superseded by French windows; altar cloths and pulpit hangings had yielded to the superior charms of silk curtains and rich carpets (p. 35).
Edith can only nerve herself to the briefest congratulatory commonplaces in response to Edward's letter, and then brace herself for the arrival of the newlyweds. There is a moment of hope when, on Laura's first entrance her "winning" manner and "exquisitely lovely face" and "long, fair neck" banish all thoughts of "Edward's offences." Laura's playful disregard of a request of Edward's, added to her light, joking manner, bordering on levity, are too much for Edith's grave seriousness, however. Declining Edward's facetious request that Edith "teach her own good ways to such an idle child" as Laura (p. 59), Edith withdraws into the shell other own self-righteousness and unwittingly allows a real estrangement to develop between herself and the couple at Allingham. Edward's consciousness of Edith's "neglect" of Laura and Edith's regret of her own "hasty words" at last bring sufficient clarity for Edith to perceive "the barrier which years even might not be able to remove" (p. 104).
Whether the barrier is ever fully overcome the reader never learns, for the focus shifts to Gertrude and her positive relationship with Edward and Laura, with only an occasional bitter outburst from Edith, such as: "You have never loved him as I have loved .... You cannot know how all my purest enjoyments have been blended with him. . . . " This is followed by Edith's impassioned defense of Edward's misconduct in financial affairs: "... and he is good — he must be good now; others have been extravagant, too — it is not a sin" (p. 232).. Edith's own repentance for her part in the estrangement from Edward blends self-pity with the acknowledgement of guilt: "I was everything to him once, and I did not act by him as I ought" (p. 273). The same blend informs Edith's hysterical outburst when Laura is stricken with brain fever and Edward curtly brushes aside her assistance: "O Edward! forgive me; I have done wrong; but do not punish me so cruelly" (p. 301). From that point on loneliness and regret are Edith's portion until she learns self-discipline and with it — one hopes — a sense of proportion.
To turn from Edith Courtenay to Ursula Grant is to turn from the melodramatic effusions of the young novelist to the more controlled recollections of the mature first-person narrator of Ursula, published thirteen years after Gertrude. Ursula's parents had, we remember, died when she was six, leaving her in the care of two much older brothers, William and Roger. William, the elder brother, talks at length of his intention to see that his sister is provided for; Roger quietly shoulders the obligation, just as he used to carry Ursula about on his shoulders. Roger, a tall, powerful, rough man who nevertheless has a "tender way" with "colts, and kittens, and puppies" (Ursula I, 5) is the only one who can manage his spoiled and headstrong little sister. From infancy she has loved him best of all. Furthermore, until she began formal schooling at nine, Roger was her principal teacher. In short, "Father Roger and Brother Roger" was "all in all" to his "little Trott" (I, 6-7).
There is of course nothing abnormal about a six-year-old declaring to her father-substitute, "And I will be your wife. I would rather marry you than any one else" (I, 44). Unfortunately, however, Ursula's feeling for Roger persists into young womanhood, causing a sense of rejection when he goes to Canada to seek his fortune and later when, after returning to England, he decides to marry a sweet but flighty girl much younger than he. Indeed "little Jessie Lee" seems scarcely more worthy of his affection that one of the colts, kittens, or puppies he has fondled.
Of course Ursula's resentment of Jessie rests partly on a sense of threat to her security. She had, after all, remarked on Roger's return from Canada; "Oh! the blessing of resting upon another instead of deciding for oneself. Women may like power, but I can never believe that it is in their nature to like the responsibility which goes with it" (I, 309-10). She will not enjoy sharing Roger's affections with another woman any more than she will enjoy Jessie's being mistress of the house.
Only two persons perceive the full extent of Ursula's love for Roger. One is John Hervey, who, being in love with Ursula himself, turns "strangely pale" when she confides to him that "a sister's love for a brother may make earth a Paradise" (I, 298). The other person who sees Ursula's affection in its true light and does not hesitate to enlighten Ursula is the plain-speaking Mrs. Kemp, who remarks, after Roger's marriage, "All your life, Ursie, you have expected more from Roger than any sister has a right to do." Mrs. Kemp then tasks Ursula with having upset the ordering of God's Providence: "God made you and Roger brother and sister, not husband and wife. . . . Now, if you bestow upon Roger a wife's affection . . . you do in a way alter the arrangement which God has been pleased to mark out ..." (II, 115).
After an attempt at self-defense, Ursula acknowledges to herself, "Mrs. Kemp was right there; I had wilfully shut my eyes. " With this admission begins the long and painful cure of Ursula's preoccupation with Roger. The extirpation leaves a vacuum. Gradually Ursula becomes aware of "an indescribable yearning for affection — a sense of wasted feelings" (II, 214). John Hervey stands ready to fill the void. Two things seem to be required before Ursula can give herself to John, however: First, she has to acknowledge that he is very much like Roger. Secondly, Roger's feeling for Jessie, through the chain of circumstances narrated in an earlier discussion of this novel (Chapter III) must become more like that of a father than that of a husband.
Did Elizabeth Sewell realize that she was dealing in Ursula with psychological incest? It is doubtful. Yet she does so with great force and considerable insight. Miss Sewell would not have used the word "incest"; still she deals more openly with Ursula's feeling for Roger than George Eliot does with Maggie Tulliver's for Tom or Dickens does with Louisa Gradgrind's for her Tom — and in language which would not offend the most fastidious Victorian reader. How much of her own experience went into the portrayal of Ursula's passion can only be surmised from her account in the Autobiography (pp. 42-43) other feelings, as a young girl, for her brother William. It is curious that, in Ursula, she takes care to bestow the name "William" upon the brother whom her heroine loves only moderately.
At the risk of committing the biographical fallacy, one is tempted to relate the frequency of same-sex romance in Elizabeth Sewell's novels to certain strong attachments the author herself experienced for other girls or women. One thinks first of Miss Sewell's school friend, later sister-in-law, Lucy Nedham, who "gave" her her children when she was near death, and took with her, when she went, the "beauty of life. " Did not Miss Sewell herself suggest an analogy between Lady Catharine Hyde's feeling for Alice Lennox in Laneton Parsonage and her own feeling for Lucy's children (Autobiography, pp. 79-81)? The same situation occurs in The Earl's Daughter, except that the "bequest" is divided between Mrs. Wentworth, who inherits Lady Rutherford's portrait, and Mrs. Howard, whom she selects for the education of her daughter.
The motif of the beautiful young moribund heiress is also familiar to us from the characterization of Blanche in The Earl's Daughter and Jane Forbes in Katherine Ashton. The first of these types is of course Beatrice Novera, the consumptive countess in Margaret Percival. In the Autobiography (pp. 90-91), Miss Sewell states that the "outline" for Countess Novera was suggested by a portrait of the first Duchess of Beaufort, taken at the age of fourteen, and that the "germ" developed in the Countess Novera was Miss Pelham, afterwards Lady Charlotte Copley. In Charlotte Pelham, Miss Sewell learned to appreciate "the winning charm which beauty and the most perfect simplicity and refinement gave to a character so pure and noble, so benevolent, sympathetic, and earnestly religious" (Autobiography, p. 91). That Miss Sewell had older aristocratic friends, as well, we know from the Autobiography and the Journal. One would judge from numerous references that she was fairly intimate with Lady Jane Swinburne, mother of Algernon. There is also a reference to "the tour which I made with Lady Hampson in 1851" (Autobiography, p. 103). This was the journey to Venice through the Tyrol, on which the foreign episodes of Ivors are based. Many other Lady So-and-So's are mentioned in passing.
Where the Italian element in some of the Beatrice-types derives iron is not entirely clear. By the time Miss Sewell came to create Marietta Randolph, the charming half-English, half-Italian girl of Home Life and After Life, she had in real life loved and lost Annunziata Fronduti. In the Journal entry for May 20, 1854, Miss Sewell summarizes events in her life since the preceding January — among them
Annunziata's coming, and all the delight she is to me; help, and brightness, and rest (Annunziata Fronduti, a young Italian girl who came to live with us and give lessons to our nieces and pupils . . . ). I could never have imagined anyone so entirely suiting me, and so charming in every wry. One quite marvels at having met with such a person, but it is providential for me and for her too. I hope and believe she is very happy." [Journal, p. 81]
The keyword in the above passage is rest. "Rest" is used elsewhere to express the ultimate desideratum in a personal relationship — marriage, for example. Four years later (August 20, 1858), Miss Sewell was to write of Mrs. Sarah Cleveland, an American woman who came to be one of Miss Sewell's best friends — if not the best friend — in her later years: "At last at Interlachen and under the same roof as Mrs. Cleveland. There is much in this world to be thankful for in spite of all contretemps. Rain has followed us but I care little for that now ..." (Journal, p. 136). Then a postscript: "Being with Mrs. Cleveland is such a rest" (p. 139). When she was not with Mrs. Cleveland she wrote letters — "once a fortnight" for nearly forty years (Autobiography, p. 123).
Unlike the Cleveland relationship, the friendship with Annunziata was to cause Miss Sewell much unrest. The rupture in their relationship is recorded in the Journal entry for August 24, 1856, at Beckley. Annunziata had been considering returning to her original Roman Catholic faith, but had decided negatively until she read Newman's Loss and Gain and some other "Romish books." Miss Sewell presumed her secure in the Anglican faith until the day of a particular outing, of which Miss Sewell writes:
. . . we made an expedition to Shanklin Chine — Annunziata and myself, with some of the children. We were sitting together while the children were playing. I made some observation about Rome. In answer there came a burst of Romanist feeling which fell upon me like a thunderbolt. Annunziata could no longer be happy, she said, in the English Church, there was no consistency, no unity. She had left Rome young and in ignorance, and she must at all hazards return to it! That day will never be forgotten. It was emphatically black. [italics hers; p. 93]
Annunziata's defection from the faith of Miss Sewell combined with other personal crises, the Journal continues, left the writer "in a whirl and mist of bewilderment and wretchedness, pain of every kind suggesting itself."
The enthusiasm of the 1854 Journal entry coupled with the sense of personal betrayal evident in the 1856 passage suggest an emotionally charged relationship in which the young foreigner exerts a strong attraction for the staid English spinster entering middle life. Perhaps Annunziata viewing the ocean near Bonchurch resembled the fictional Marietta at Biarritz, whose delight in the "perfect sea" cheered Mrs. Anstruther, who remarks in After Life; "She was like a child in her ecstasy. It is one of her peculiarities — or rather, I suspect, it is part of her Italian nature — to be absolutely absorbed in the present, whatever that may be" (pp. 90, 91).
Two further variations on the woman-girl friendship theme are to be found in Experience of Life, where Lady Emily Rivers reaches across social class lines to befriend young Sarah Mortiner, and in Ivors, where Mme Reinhard exerts such a strong attraction, intellectual and feminist in kind, on restless Helen Clare. Lady Emily Rivers is happily married, Sarah hardly more than a child; Mme Reinhard is a caricature of the independent woman of the nineteenth century and as such has a limited, though thematically important, function within the story. In the later novels also the romantic friendship element remains within reasonable bounds. This is not always the case with the earlier novels. For the early novels the reviewer of "Ivors and Other Tales" makes a shrewd and somewhat humorous summary of this strain in Elizabeth Sewell:
A romantic unequal friendship must have played a constant part in her early dreams; it plays a very curious part in all these tales . . . ; all her heroines have friends, and their mothers had friends before them .... They have most frequently no obvious connexion with the object of attachment, either from position or suitability, something like a magnetic attraction bringing the two together. It is so engrossing a relation as generally to interfere with the enlargement of the mind in any other direction, and grows up and is sustained under difficulties of circumstances, inequality of rank and chances of meeting as would present effectual hindrances to the formation of any other tie. [The Christian Remembrancer, 33:297]
Last modified 6 March 2008